Christ Chapel Sermon
October 25, 2016
Readings: Ephesians 5:21–33; Psalm 128; Luke 13:18–21
“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In the world of Harry Potter, if you enter Olivander’s wand shop you will discover this: you do not choose the wand; the wand chooses you. And so it is sometimes for the preacher: you do not choose the text, the text chooses you.
Even in a lectionary that has smoothed out and left out some of the hardest, most troubling parts of the Bible, there remain certain texts that, once you have read them, you must comment upon. Our passage from Ephesians 5 is one of those texts. The temptation for any preacher is to read this passage and flee to the Gospel or perhaps even preach on the Psalm.
We are tempted to ignore the passages that involve gnashing of teeth or genocide of the Canaanites or, as in this case, the mandating of gender roles that seem as have as much to do with maintaining male power as they have to do with anything about Jesus.
But these are exactly the passages that we must speak about as preachers. We cannot read these texts and leave them rattling around in the minds of our hearers unexplained, unexamined, as if we are perfectly fine with the message they are sending.
So, this morning I did not choose Ephesians. Ephesians chose me.
In this passage Paul exhorts his readers, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” He then goes on to spell out in some detail what that means – for husbands and wives, as we read in our passage, and then in the following verses for parents and children, slaves and masters. Paul’s description of these relationships assumes a model of hierarchy and obedience that would have been the norm in his day. He takes these hierarchies and overlays a Christological meaning: “Just as the church is subject to Christ,” he writes, “so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.” And “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ.”
And while Paul gestures toward reciprocities that might have sounded liberating at the time – “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church,” and “Masters … stop threatening [your slaves]” – to our ears these verses take us back to a set of social assumptions that sound nothing like the mutuality and shared life that we assume to be the norm today.
So how do we proceed? Do we double down on an outdated and oppressive account of human relationships just because we find these words in the Bible? Do we ignore these words and lobby the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary to leave them out of the next edition? Or perhaps there is a way forward that recognizes these words as part of our canonical tradition but engages in a process of “critical traditioning” — handing on the words in such a way that they are transformed even as they are maintained.
To do this I want to take a detour through Richard Hooker before returning to Paul. Hooker thought a lot about how to understand laws and rules. He believed that God had embedded a deep, eternal natural law in the creation, but he also believed that all human formulations of specific laws were open to error and were in principle changeable. These changes, though, are not a matter of human whim.
Thus Hooker says, “Men do not presume to change God’s ordinance, but they yield thereunto requiring itself to be changed” (cited in Anglican Identities, 48, Hooker, Laws, III.10.5). Rowan Williams calls this insight “an ingenious and a strong formulation of a delicate point” (ibid.). I’m inclined to call it confusing. But essentially Hooker is saying that while human beings cannot change God’s ordinance at will, we can and must yield when an ordinance “requires itself to be changed,” that is, when the norm as passed down to us no longer effects the result it once did or was intended to achieve.
Williams explains the point this way: “Once we understand what a law is for, we can understand whether and how it is mutable. . . . But understanding what a law is for means having some grasp of how historically limited cultures work: of why such and such a law is thought to produce a particular effect in these circumstances, or why what once produced that effect no longer does so. To hold on to a specific convention when it no longer effects what it did, even if the convention is held to be a positive divine mandate, is not obedience at all: and to change what we do in such circumstances is not altering God’s commands but obeying the imperative contained implicitly in the failure of the mandate now to deliver what it formerly did” (ibid.). Williams, interpreting Hooker, suggests that there are times when being faithful to a divine (or canonical) injunction precisely requires that we no longer follow the injunction as written.
To bring this back to Paul, we might say that Paul’s exhortation to “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” names an aspiration consistent with Christ’s example, but that the foundation of social hierarchy upon which Paul builds his specific imperatives has come in for such profound dismantling – and from deeply theological places – that Paul’s vision of husbands and wives, masters and slaves cannot today effect anything like a mutually dependent relationship of faithfulness. Such injunctions “require [themselves] to be changed.”
So how what might we alter his imperatives while maintaining the deeper goal of mutual self-offering? Perhaps not with new imperatives but with a parable. In fact, our parable from this morning might be instructive.
“What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches” (Luke 13:18-19).
The mustard seed in this parable becomes subject to another – in fact, twice so. First, it is taken by another and sown; second, once it is grown it becomes subject to the birds of the air who come and nest in its branches. Neither of these instances of becoming subject to another detracts from the seed becoming precisely what it was meant to be. Indeed, it could not have grown into a tree if it had not become subject to the sower. And once it had grown, it’s own flourishing was in no way diminished by becoming home to another.
Here we have an image that opens up Ephesians 5 in a very different way. Becoming mutually subject to one another emerges here as a poetic invitation to open space for the capacious welcome of another, to create in ourselves a place for the other to act upon us, to ask things of us, and to submit ourselves to their presence in our lives.
Just as the tree becomes home to the birds, so in marriage two people become home to one another and in this way make themselves freely subject to another’s presence in their lives. We invite the other to nest in our branches, to enter the space in our souls that has been opened to them. And we trust that we will flourish, like the mustard seed, when we subject ourselves to the needs and claims of others who, by God’s grace, can cast us onto good soil and who, by God’s grace, can take up residence in the midst of our flourishing and co-create a shared life.
The sower, the seed, the tree, the birds — subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Amen.